Nielsen Music’s 2017 year-end-report puts rap at the top of the list for most listened to genre of 2017.
As rock ‘n’ roll declines, Imagine Dragons continue to ascend.
Thanks to a monster 2017, in which the Las Vegas quartet had the best-selling rock album of the year with their third release, Evolve, and the No. 1 and No. 2 top rock singles with their songs Believer and Thunder, Imagine Dragons have entered 2018 as America’s most popular rock band.
Need further proof of their staying power? Amid the band’s recent announcements of their new single, Next To Me,and their forthcoming North American tour, they set a new charts record, becoming the first act to have three songs spend at least a year on the Billboard Hot 100, with 2012’s breakout single Radioactive and Demons and 2017’s Believer — with a fourth song, Thunder, close to joining them.
While Imagine Dragons are beloved by the fans that pack into arenas to watch them live, the band isn’t exactly a favorite with music critics, with reviews maligning the band’s “lifeless electronic-tinged arena rock” that “groans (its) way into the speakers of your dentist’s office.”
So how exactly did Imagine Dragons become a decade-defining rock band?
Fans say they’re innovators. Experts say they’re a record label’s dream. And cynics say they’re everything that’s wrong with the streaming era, which can favor genre-straddling music that’s faceless enough to appear on any one of, say, Spotify’s highly listened house playlists.
“Imagine Dragons, commercially speaking, is inarguably a touchstone band in ’10s rock history,” says Steven Hyden, culture critic at Uproxx and author of the forthcoming book Twilight of the Gods, which investigates the rise and fall of classic rock. “Along with bands like Twenty One Pilots, Imagine Dragons epitomizes how the sonic barriers between rock, pop, and hip-hop are virtually non-existent for millions of listeners.”
Indeed, the “rock” bands that have gained the most traction in the past several years don’t sound much like rock bands at all. Twenty One Pilots, the rap-rock-ska duo from Columbus, Ohio, is another example of a band who’ve broken through genre-agnostic releases.
It’s telling Imagine Dragons’ biggest year yet, 2017, coincided with a low point for rock ‘n’ roll, which relinquished its status as America’s most-listened-to genre for the first time in history last year, with hip-hop now topping the country’s listenership.
“Part of the reason we’ve seen hip-hop take over is because those artists innovate and change how we listen, not just what we listen to — rock ‘n’ roll once did that, too,” says Maria Sherman, a managing editor at Gizmodo Media Group. “Imagine Dragons fall under both camps — they’re old-school and inventive. Their music plays a part in a greater guitar/drums/bass tradition, but they also experiment with big pop hooks, country-leaning ballads, a whole cinematic range their own. I mean, I struggle to call Thunder a rock song simply because there’s so much happening in it — there’s nothing that feels particularly vintage there.”
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Instead, Imagine Dragons mash up Coldplay-esque arena rock and Mumford and Sons’ style of stomping folk, adding programmed beats and EDM drops to create a pop-rock Frankenstein. Yet, this lowest-common-denominator rock has allowed the group to chart on both Billboard‘s rock and pop charts, with the Grammys nominating their music for awards in both genre categories, which only expands their opportunities for exposure.
“They fit extremely well in a variety of different radio formats and playlists,” Hyden says. “Imagine Dragons is designed to appeal to a wide variety of tastes and they’ve obviously succeeded in hitting those marks.”
“New rock bands don’t look, sound, or feel anything like (classic rock groups) — acts like Imagine Dragons and certainly Twenty One Pilots, who don’t even have a guitar player,” Sherman says. “Both bands use synths like guitars (the new Linkin Park record is a solid example of this, too) but there’s still very much a rock feel. We’re getting to a point where the only rock music that can and will float to the top is the kind that is hybrid in some particular way.”
2017’s year-end charts proved this to be true, with classic rock stalwarts Metallica placing third in sales with their album Hardwired…To Self-Destruct, behind Evolve and, in second place, Twenty One Pilots’ Blurryface. In fact, the only band to top Imagine Dragons among Spotify’s most-streamed groups of 2017 was Coldplay — which, as Spotify explained in a press release, was exclusively off the strength of their Chainsmokers collaboration Something Just Like This, a song that’s very Imagine Dragons-ian in its rock-EDM fusion.
At the rate they’re going, Imagine Dragons are on track to emerge from the 2010s as the decade’s reigning rock act, if one of their soundalike counterparts doesn’t steal that title. Yet, their defining legacy — reshaping popular rock music for the streaming age — won’t necessarily be one of quality.
“I think they’re going to be on the radio forever, and that’s certainly an admirable legacy,” Sherman says. “They don’t seem like the kind of act to, say, inspire books or write history — there’s usually some extramusicial or identity element that inspires intrigue, and Imagine Dragons aren’t, say, leading some cultural change. However, their music will remain in the pop culture milieu for a while. Their songs are too big not to.”
“The history books often have a bias toward critical favorites, and in that regard, Imagine Dragons will be downgraded,” Hyden predicts. “I don’t think anyone looks at them as the best band from an artistic standpoint. They are a convenient cog that fits comfortably in this new streaming machine that the labels have desperately facilitated to save their business. Ultimately, the most notable thing about Imagine Dragons’ music is that it sells.”
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